His name was Maxwell Max Dugan and this is his story, but only covers those disturbing and warful years between 1941 to 1947, just seven years chockfull of battles, combat, explosions, heroic people, deadly people on a world-wide rampage, and means of salvage, at least of the souls, if nothing else.
Max was in an athletic family, a star brother Jim ahead of hm in football, baseball. and hockey. Basketball would have been in place, too, but the town had no place for basketball. Those activities drew on Max, framed his wants in those directions, athletics dragging him to that pile. And him and his big brother were bunkmates in the backroom atop the garage, and not one of their four sisters ever entered that domicile, leaving boys to boy places, to their own lot; it worked out for all, the small brother still sleeping in a corner of their parents’ room..
Jim, at the height of his career, the war racing about the whole world, joined the Navy Seals and found himself on an island in the Pacific Ocean before he could catch his breath. Jim, not by any chance, but dedication, and found himself with a new reputation, one that made Max prouder than ever, Max in Junior High School in 1941.
His cousin Warren, wounded in the first hour of combat, almost an incurable wound, and declaring him unfit for military duty, was discharged from the service. When he came home, he found his three sisters scattered across the land, one even in the military, and he had no place to live.
Max’s mother invited him to be a bunkmate with Max out over the garage, and Warren brought with him two guitars, and lyrics and music of hundreds of songs he had written, lyrics composed, tunes brought to life through his own energy and creation, or learned from his buddies in his training days, a continual, melodious voice that carried all of it to Max in endless days of those following years, the lot of the Kentuckian hill folk, the hillbilly lullabies and prayer songs right from the heart of the country, ownership within everybody involved; they were all part of it.
Max was a quick learner, had imagination, could score a song on his own or do it from memory, It proved well for Max, for Warren soon gave him one of his guitars, which Max went at ferociously, continually, at all hours of day and night, nobody in the house hearing him or them when they did duets, running their talents together, like their blood was communal again, all the traces identical, all of the flavors and talents in the musical mix.
They were a pair without an audience, that situation held back by a cessation of letters from Jim in the wild Pacific, a small or large island now under his feet, enemies likely at hand, his attention directed elsewhere. Finally, word came from various sources, at home, in the backroom out over the garage, to the anxious younger brother, to the song-filled wounded veteran of the war ranging over the whole face of the Earth; Jim had won several medals for bravery as a crusading Navy Seal, exposing himself to death at any second, to heroics at any other second, his old drive and power still underway, still under control, still at command.
Max continued his dreams of following Jim in the major sports, aiming for such undertakings, while carrying, most secretly, a new passion that had grasped him body and soul and promised to never let go.
He had moved from Junior High School to the high school, all parts of him, the needs and the passions growing within him, about him, bodily, in voice, in the secret talent he kept in place, part of them in the room out over the garage, some of them on display for crowds at the stadium or the ballfield or the rink without a roof over it in the war years, shovels coming to the rink with players, along with their hockey gear, to shovel the ice surface clear enough for their games. All of it was group-heavy, demanding personal entry.
Max suspected, in his curious way, that some things worthy shared some of their energies within his soul, so deeply felt that he could somehow measure the match-up. He held tight to the things that his big brother had done, had conquered, in his same short years he was storied in, the great runs and kicks and passes, the long ball over the outfield fence, the quick double-play erasing runs siting on the bases, the late third-period goal snapping a win from a sure defeat, the small crowd cheering the team to victory.
Somehow, someway, in the souls of the connected, truly connected, as much by spirit as by blood, he and Jim shared these times at the edge of glory in its proper place, a sense of completion, the good feeling of a win, the sharing taking place between brothers so far apart, and yet, so close together it was miraculous, totally miraculous.
Then the big bomb in the family went off: Jim was declared missing from his last Navy Seal action when Max was in his junior year of high school, having helped knock off two undefeated teams, his father standing in the endzone while he was supposed to be at work, one of Max’s teammates saying in the huddle, “Hey, Max, is that your father standing down there on the goal line in his uniform? It sure looks like him. I don’t know anybody who has a uniform like that. I saw him cheering wildly on your last pass. Nobody else like that around here, ever! I swear, Max, it has to be him. I saw him before, at Manning Bowl in Lynn, when he drove into the end of the field in the General Electric ambulance, right into the end zone, the siren still going from when he jumped into it at the guard gate and drove it down there with the sirens blasting the whole way, cause my folks told me about it too.”
Warren played some real sad songs that night, nearly crying through half of them, his way of paying tribute, with Max finally joining in, the music for them alone, and for his big brother Jim, lost somewhere in the world of battle, somewhere in the middle of the whole damned, forever-damned Pacific Ocean; they played deep into the night after the news, after another win on Max’s side of things, and the loss of Jim’s side of things.
In the meantime, Max had participated in school functions, held offices, served where and when he could anytime help was needed, including this appearance, and the last gathering of the year when he sat at the end of a circle of officers on the school stage with a guitar on the floor beside him. The whole four years of classes were gathered for the last meeting of 1947, Max’s year of graduation, sports all done, his helping anyplace in school all done, sports all done, and an unlikely guitar at his side, at the side of never-known musical Max Dugan, the mystery grasping the whole audience, the whole school, Max Dugan with a guitar at his feet.
Teammates from all sports leaned forward, classmates from all classes leaned forward, especially close friends leaned forward, teachers leaned forward, all at the mysterious wonder seizing all hands. The principal of the school, stern as ever but fair as ever, wondered what his favorite student was up to.
Cousin Warren had snuck into the assembly and grabbed a seat near the back of the auditorium, having heard Max’s growth and grace with the instrument for several years, now measured to this point of time, this artful occasion. He could have announced it from where he sat. but left that all up to Max; it was his call, it was his big loss of a big brother, it was his way of saluting a lost hero.
His mother had told Max nothing of newer news, letting him have this moment to do his thing in his own way, do whatever he had planned to do. But it was Warren who spotted way on the other side of the hall, the entrance of a Navy Seal, a heavily-braided officer, as he slipped slowly. mostly hidden, into a back-row seat.
That’s when Max Dugan, leaning over to pick up the strange guitar, felt his lost feeling disappear and an elation of connection invade his body. He looked about the whole room and saw no reason for the change, as the guitar came into his hands, found his shoulder, found comfort in a familiar place, and Max Dugan, without announcement of the least bit, began playing a song of loss to the whole room, a beautiful, soulful, haunting song not a soul in the room had ever heard but cousin Warren, near tears in his seat, and the principal recognizing that he was hearing a miracle develop in front of him for the first time in forty years of teaching.
At the finish of Max’s hillbilly song of loss, all its mysteries unfolding right there before them, true gala swung through them all, every one so gathered, all caught up by mystery and a beautifully-delivered song by the least unexpected person of all.
4 thoughts on “Top Secret by Tom Sheehan”
Great to see Sheehan back. No matter his subject there’s never a hint of meanness in his writing.
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Good tone to this. It showed the love and pride he had for his brother and him also finding his own way.
And there was that little bit of mystique which always makes you wonder.
Excellent as always my friend.
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It is difficult to handle something like this without seeming smaltzy. This story pulls it off.
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Bluegrass is very haunting sad music, I like the way the story builds and develops the American ambiance of that time. Max kind of absorbed the traits of both his brothers, I like the way that was done, lots of connection here.
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